Spain in Georgia: "You won't find anything new in the archives in Seville"

James Langford, December 2006

As a young doctoral candidate in 1994, University of Georgia graduate John Worth was in no mood to appreciate the humor of the unintended pun. He was eager to jump into the thick books and moldy basements of the Old World and begin searching for fragments of a lost century of Georgia's history. Treasure hunters began hanging out in Seville in the 1970s while looking for records of shipwrecked cargos of gold, silver, jade, and emeralds from the 16th and 17th centuries. But Worth was after something more precious than the riches of a thousand caravels—the records of lost civilizations. He wanted to find out what happened to the great Native American provinces like Coosa, Cofitachequi, and Ichisi, the most powerful and influential societies north of Mexico in the early 16th century. So Worth did not heed the dismissals of a few historians and archivists who had worked over the records. Instead, he charged off to Spain like a modern conquistador in reverse.

Worth found more than 10,000 pages of 16th- and 17th-century material in his first few months in the Spanish archives. More than that, he met and married a museum professional from Seville, and now he goes back every year to visit the in-laws and to find and translate thousands of additional pages of material about the earliest periods of exploration and governance of the new continent, and especially the areas that now comprise Florida and Georgia.

It is not hyperbole that Worth has literally rewritten the history book accounts of 16th- and 17th-century Georgia, those mysterious days before the founding of the colony by James Oglethorpe in 1733. Since his first finds in the early 1990s, Worth has translated more than 20,000 pages of old Spanish texts, published several articles and books, and become the definitive authority on southeastern Native American societies during their demise in the aftermath of Spanish contact.

The "new" material found by Worth provides the detail of personal tragedies, the decimation of civilizations, the attempted Christian conversion of the native populations, the pains of slavery, and the beauty of marshes and mountains. From the reconnaissance of Pedro de Quejos in 1525 to the exploration by Benito Ruiz de Salazar Vallecilla in 1645, Georgia was the focus of more than 40 expeditions by soldiers, friars, businessmen, entrepreneurs, and government officials from Spain and its outposts in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

De Soto and Native Encounters

Searches for gold drove the first wave of Spaniards into Georgia, and Hernando de Soto knew how to find gold. He was the key commander under Pizarro who stole and mined tons of gold from the Andes in Peru. When de Soto returned to Spain from Peru and prepared to launch his own treasure hunt in the large land area north of the Caribbean, the venture was oversubscribed. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.

In the spring of 1540, after camping for the winter in northern Florida, de Soto drove his army of about 600 soldiers and some wealthy civilians into southwestern Georgia. They encountered large and highly organized populations of Native Americans as they moved north through central Georgia; east and north into South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee; and then south again into northwest Georgia. He stayed for more than a month at the capital of the powerful chiefdom of Coosa, located along the banks of the Coosawattee River near Calhoun, Georgia.

Research by archaeologists over the past 30 years confirms the location, the influence, and complexities of societies like Coosa encountered by the Spaniards. The physical evidence also confirms what Worth found in the archives: the native people were decimated by plague diseases and warfare with Europeans. Perhaps as much as 90 percent of the native populations disappeared between 1540 and 1600. This means that by 1700 the tribes we know as the Creeks and Cherokees were only ghostly remnants of the large societies from which they descended.

Attempts at Colonization

Beginning in 1560 with the Tristan de Luna expedition, the Spanish also made serious attempts at colonizing this land we now call Georgia. Luna landed in Pensacola Bay with 1,500 Mexican soldiers, farmers, artisans, blacksmiths, and priests with the goal of establishing a large permanent colony in northwest Georgia in the same Coosawattee Valley of the powerful Coosa chiefdom that de Soto visited in 1540. Some members of Luna's group were Native Americans kidnapped by de Soto who had traveled to Mexico with the remnants of his party, living there for 20 years before returning as interpreters and guides for the Luna expedition.

While Luna was well-equipped, most of his 15 ships were destroyed by a hurricane before their supplies could be unloaded, leaving the colonists fighting for survival. A small contingent of 140 soldiers and two Dominican friars from the expedition made it all the way to the Coosa capital and stayed for several months, sending food provided by the Coosa people more than 200 miles downriver on crude rafts to the rest of the starving group.

If not for the hurricane, a good portion of Georgia and the southeast may have been a prosperous colony and outpost of Spain. Instead, the entire Luna venture was abandoned, and the survivors made their way back to Mexico in 1561.

Efforts to convert the Indian populations to Christianity began in earnest in the late 1500s and continued for most of the 17th century as the Dominican, Jesuit, and Franciscan orders founded more than 20 Catholic missions on Georgia's barrier islands and within 50 miles of the coast. Because of a combination of uprisings and pirate raids, these missions were completely abandoned by 1684.

The details of Georgia's connection to Spain keep rising to the surface as ethnographers, archaeologists, and historians continue to scour the soils of the state and document repositories in Seville, Havana, and Mexico City. Now no one believes "there's nothing new" to be discovered about Georgia's past.

—James Langford, a native of Calhoun, Georgia, serves as state director of the Trust for Public Land. He is the author and co-author of several publications on the prehistory of northwest Georgia, and the founder of the Coosawattee Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on preserving archaeological sites and educating the public about past cultures.